The term “tipping point” is part of the zeitgeist, abetted by Malcolm Gladwell’s eponymous book. However there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical whether such a beast really exists. For example: are ideas adopted by populations because the original idea spreads, or because the idea evolves into different ideas that are more desirable? That’s certainly true of products like the mobile phone or the internet where continuous improvement and reinvention were the key to social adoption.

However, maybe there is a kind of tipping point after all. At least according to some cognitive network modellers who reckon they’ve discovered it, and it’s 10%.

Scientists at Renssear Polytechnic, New York, modelled different social networks and concluded that:

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” but “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.” 

A limitation of the research is that their social networks were computer models and the real world is gigantically more complex. Their models assumed that one group of people with a staunchly held view gradually convince others who held a traditional belief. But of course that’s never the case. Society is full of pockets of people with actively conflicting ideas. And conflicting ideas tend to cluster into polar opposites: Labor/Liberal; Democract/Republican. Where ideas threaten interests, the result can be deadlock where societies get stuck until the external environment changes. Fortunately, when it comes to climate change, we can count on the environment changing!

Still it’s interesting research.

The full media release is at